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2017 Constitution group reignites amendment debate

By Geddes D. Anderson Jr., The JBA president

The Jacksonville Bar Association just completed a series of political debates thanks to the hard work of member Tony Zebouni, a partner with Regan Whelan Zebouni & Atwood, and the JBA staff.

The debates revealed how engaged voters become over important political issues.

Indeed, with the August and November elections just around the corner, there is plenty of political buzz in the air.

Flying under the radar, however, is the 2017-18 Constitutional Revision Commission that will seek to make important changes to the Florida Constitution.

The commission likely will address controversial proposals including amendments related to medical marijuana, LGBTQ rights, gambling, firearms, term limits, redistricting and further “adjustments” to the judicial branch of government.

It convenes every 20 years and its 37 members evaluate and propose amendments to the Florida Constitution for voter consideration.

Political commentators say the commission will be politically unbalanced and voters should carefully scrutinize any proposals placed on the ballot in 2018.

The first Constitution Revision Commission convened in 1977. Florida’s governor was Democrat Reubin Askew, who appointed 15 commission members and named as chair attorney Sandy D’Alemberte.

That body had three members from Jacksonville –– legal legends Bill Birchfield and Jack Mathews and former Florida Senate President Lew Brantley.

The inaugural commission placed eight proposals on the 1978 ballot and voters rejected all of the amendments.

Twenty years later, in 1997, Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, appointed 15 members and Chair Dexter Douglas.

Meanwhile, the Florida Senate president and speaker of the House –– both Republicans –– each chose nine members.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, served on the 1997 commission as an automatic member. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court chose the remaining three members.

That group evaluated almost 200 proposals but settled on just nine amendments.

Voters approved eight of the proposed changes, including expanded ballot access allowing voters, regardless of party affiliation, to vote in any party’s primary election if the winner would have no general election opposition; the option of requiring a criminal history records check and waiting period in the sale of any firearm; and creation of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation and Marine Fisheries commissions.

Also approved were consolidation of the Cabinet offices of treasurer and comptroller into the chief financial officer’s position; reduction of Cabinet membership to the CFO, attorney general and agriculture commissioner; and updating the “natural persons” definition to include women as well as men.

The ongoing debate continues about whether and to what extent the commission should change the Florida Constitution.

‘’We should not be predisposed to change,’’ said Toni Jennings when she was president of the Senate in 1997.

‘’Just because the Constitution says we should have a Constitution Revision Commission every 20 years, we should not immediately believe that it is important to change that basic document,’’ she added.

Some argue the Constitution should be a basic document outlining broad principles and governmental structure rather than a mushrooming list of laws and regulations.

Others support regular evaluation and amendment to ensure the document adapts to the changing world and addresses contemporary needs.

Should the amendment process be more difficult like the amendment process for the U.S. Constitution?

At present, the Florida Constitution is more than 87 pages. It could be more voluminous as a result of changes proposed by the 2017 commission.

Who will comprise the next commission that will be introduced in February?

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican Senate president and the Republican speaker of the House will choose 33 of 37 members who will join Attorney General Pam Bondi, also a Republican and an automatic commission member.

The Florida Supreme Court chief justice will select the other three members.

Now is the time for input.

To suggest a candidate, contact the governor’s office at flgov.com; the Senate president at flsenate.gov; the speaker of the House at myfloridahouse.gov; the chief justice at floridasupremecourt.org; and the attorney general at myfloridalegal.com.

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